Research Sheds Light on Deaths at Los Alamos Lab
Jan 27, 2013 (Albuquerque Journal - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
In 1956 and 1959, three explosive accidents killed seven Los Alamos National Laboratory workers in separate tragedies that were cloaked in secrecy for decades.
Officials told the families their loved ones had died in explosive accidents, but nothing more. They never knew how, why or where the accidents occurred. For more than 50 years, no plaques marked the sites of the deaths.
LANL explosives safety officer Cary Skidmore will give the first public talk about the tragedies at 7:30 p.m. in the Pajarito Room of Fuller Lodge on Tuesday, Feb. 12.
Skidmore spent six years researching and compiling records of the accidents and tracking down the families. Most still lived in the area, except one widow who had moved to Colorado with her children. As Skidmore combed through the archives and accident reports, he faced a mixed reception within LANL.
"Some people said, 'Hey, this is great.' Other people were like, 'Don't spend too much time with this,' " Skidmore said in a telephone interview from Los Alamos. "Then I started to say,'What happened to the families ' "
The explosions all stemmed from the Manhattan Project.
"In the Manhattan Project, we used to blow materials apart for military uses," Skidmore explained. "All of this was used in atomic weapons works."
The 1956 accident took place with an experimental explosive. Candalario Esquibel, 29, was scraping some dried explosive powder from oven trays to store in glass bottles when the blast occurred. He died instantly when 50 pounds detonated. Esquibel left two daughters, ages 1 and 3, and another child on the way.
"It was a surprise to everybody," Skidmore said. "They thought it was a safe material."
In February 1959, Leo Guerin, 35, was drilling small holes into a plastic explosive.
"They didn't have a suitable drill, so they used a soldered hypodermic needle with a cutting tip," Skidmore said. LANL officials speculate the needle either broke or got plugged.
Another worker ( Ray Means, 31) who happened to be in the same office also died.
"They were standing there at the drill press when it exploded," Skidmore said.
"We don't stand in these operations anymore," Skidmore continued. "We stand behind a partition with robotically controlled machines."
In October 1959, four workers were preparing to burn scraps and explosive residue. They were unloading the material from a truck when the third accident occurred.
"They had machine scrap like sawdust," Skid more explained. "Some were just pieces and residue. They were going to detonate them by exposing them to heat from fire.
Jose C. Cordova, 37; Sevedeo Lujan, 53; Escolastico Martinez, 47; and Leopoldo F. Pacheco, 50 died when 300 pounds of explosives erupted.
Only body parts were left.
Most of the family members knew next to nothing about their loved ones' deaths when Skidmore contacted them. "They were very open and interested and receptive to it," he said. "It was a time of healing for them."
There were many tears and some anger, he added.
"There was some resentment toward the lab," he said, "and the things they didn't know and couldn't find out at the time. And some bitterness.
"They were like, 'Finally, finally, we got some closure.' "
New procedures, machinery, improved packaging and advanced technology have made such incidents much less likely to occur, Skidmore said.
"We were learning new things about safety at the time," he said. "A lot of things changed. An explosives safety committee was formed.
"They didn't know much," he added. "They didn't have any context for what happened."
Family members visited the so-called "burning ground" explosion site when a memorial was finally installed in 2009. Families of the first 1959 accident finally saw the site when that plaque was installed in 2011. Family members from the 1956 accident will visit that memorial in May. If you go
WHAT: "The Seven LANL Explosives Fatalities: Technical and Human Perspectives," a talk by Cary Skidmore
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 12
WHERE: Pajarito Room, Fuller Lodge, 2132 Central Ave., Los Alamos
CONTACT: 505- 622-1635
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Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.) at www.abqjournal.com Distributed by MCT Information
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